Lena Horne Fights Through Storms

At the age of twenty-two, one could find Lena Horne at a baseball park in Pittsburgh, rooting for the Homestead Grays, an all-black team. She often had at least one of her two children there, and fans who noticed her believed she was content on growing old with her husband and raising her kids.

The truth, however, was different. Lena was stuck—trapped inside a domesticated prison. She was a performer—a 5’7’’ bronze-toned knockout, locked within a lifestyle she’d thought would help free herself from her mother. But the truth was that the choices she’d made out of rebellion had only made her more like her mother, an aspiring actress as well.

As she sat at that baseball game, Lena no doubt felt pulled in several directions…

First, there were her two wonderful kids. How could she ever leave them like her mother had done? She loved them dearly, but artists like Lena in general often have one foot in their reality, and the other in a place they can never quite reach.

Second, there was her husband. If she left him, the fallout might prove enormous. He was possessive, and she had loved him once. Would she be quitting too early on a vow she had made at the age of nineteen?

Finally, there was New York—a performer’s sanctuary. She had so much potential and had survived the obstacles of hate. All of these directions pulled at her at that baseball game, and they were enough to drive her mad. She had to make a choice.

With her children around her, it would have been without surprise that Lena daydreamed of her past, and the people who’d gotten her to this point in time…

 For Lena, it was Cora, her grandmother, who became the most consistent authority during her childhood. For years Cora told Lena, without a drop of sympathy… “Think for yourself. Don’t make excuses. Don’t lie. Never say ‘ain’t’. Learn how to read. Learn how to listen. Hold your head straight, look people in the eye, talk to them distinctly…never let anyone see you cry.”

Lena learned how to bury those conflicting emotions and, in a way, suffer elegantly. While deploying her grandmother’s advice, her mother Edna dragged Lena through Florida and then through the South in the hopes that she, not Lena, could become a star.

As Edna pursued her own goals, Lena, because of her ‘uppity’ color, was derided at school by classmates as being “high yellow”, or, more accurately in the South, “high yaller”. Because of her mixed heritage, Lena received doses of racism from both sides, and friends were a rarity because she never stayed long in one particular city. Her mother was always dragging her somewhere new, with more promise. “(I was) afraid of people…of letting myself be close to them…I made my peace that no one really did love me…regardless of my color.”

After a while, the act of fitting in became such a regular experience that Lena soon regarded herself as a kind of chameleon. According to James Gavin’s biography, Stormy Weather, Lena often found herself speaking in different accents:

 

“A confusion overtook her (Lena) that she never quite lost…she called herself “two or three people”, depending on her company. Her accent kept shifting: “I hear it happening and still I go ahead and do it.”

 

Thankfully for Lena, she eventually settled back into a semi-normal routine with her grandmother in Brooklyn. As her mother came and went, Lena was able to focus a bit more on her schoolwork. But as soon as normalcy set in, Lena was pulled back in to the revolving door of performing, this time with the famous Cotton Club in Harlem—made famous thanks in large part to the side effects of Prohibition[1]. Run primarily by gangsters, if you were a performer at the Cotton Club[2], you were protected by some serious muscle and metal. The performances involved mostly a brass band, dancers, a revolving set of soloists, and a crowd of mainly white folk who came in with money to spend and booze to drink.

Eventually, the Cotton Club became successful enough that black people with some money in their pockets were allowed in. However, segregation still loomed over society, and Lena and the other dancers never used certain entrances designated for white people. Their bathrooms weren’t exactly ‘bathrooms’, but basins. Still, Lena at the time didn’t complain. She was young, performing for 25 dollars a week, and keeping food on the table for her family. Her mother, who never managed to achieve this level of fame, latched on to her daughter’s dreams and took as much charge as she could on how Lena was used.

The Cotton Club allowed Lena to grow into a performer. Even Lena herself said, in the beginning, that “I had no talent; I had nothing but looks.”

From being “paralyzed by fear” to a regular performer in Cotton Club shows, Lena was soon given other opportunities to shine around the country. You would think that stardom was just around the corner. However, sometimes life feels as if “it’s rainin’ all the time”. And for Lena, there was plenty of rain.

After leaving the Cotton Club at eighteen, Lena landed a gig with a popular black conductor at the time, Noble Sissle.

Sissle didn’t mess around. He took the young and still innocent lady aside and told her exactly what he expected:

 

“One must be neater and cleaner and more genteel in attitude so that one will be accepted for the sake of helping other Negro people! You are not a whore—don’t let them treat you like one.”

 

From Sissle, Lena was given a lesson in acting dignified. The band played at various white-dominated events, and Lena soon realized that the only way a black person could get any ounce of respect from a ‘cracker’[3] was to act with an excessive amount of class, even if all she wanted to do was spit in their faces.

Most nights, Lena and the band couldn’t find a hotel that would take them, so they’d sleep on the bus on the side of the road, or with sympathetic black families or “black hostels”. Perhaps in retrospect a low point, Lena even endorsed a “Skin Whitener Ointment”. The impact of the endorsement was mute. The black community mostly understood. “She was young. She got paid.”

However, out in popular culture, black icons stirred about. The first authentic moment Lena felt to the core was when she and others listened to boxer Joe Louis’s fights over the radio. In the late 1930’s, heroes like Joe Louis were like beacons of light for African-American. His victory was their victory. So when, on June 19th, 1936, Lena listened to Joe Louis[4] fight German and Hitler-endorsed Max Schmeling, she cheered for him like there was no tomorrow. And when Louis lost, Lena was surprised to find herself in a sea of tears. Only later did she understand her sadness: “I was identifying with the symbol that we had of a powerful man, an impregnable fortress, and I didn’t realize that we drew strength from these symbols.”

On the way toward her own icon status, Lena inevitably fell in love. Her mother had remained by her side, blocking her from any potential romances that would disrupt her career. However, Lena, in an attempt to break from her mother’s clutches, and perhaps to feel something other than the cold glare of a white audience, married Louis Jones at nineteen years old. They had two children, a boy and a girl[5]. For the next two years, Lena tried to live life ‘straight up’. She did however find time to film a movie in L.A. called The Duke is Tops, but it flopped, Lena didn’t get paid, and her husband turned colder and colder.

 

“My husband wanted to be my manager, but, honey, back then no black man could walk into a café and book a black woman. The marriage couldn’t last—he tried to stop me from working. If I had been older, I would have realized it was the only way he thought he could assert his masculinity.”

 

In August of 1940, at the age of twenty-two, Lena left behind her children and a husband whose possessive efforts had decayed their marriage. She took a train to New York. She’d be with her kids again, but as for Louis, her ‘first love’?

“His personality was just too strong for me.”

Perhaps it was Lena who was too strong for him.

 

[1] By side effects I mean even more drinking and the creation of organized crime. Just those things…

[2] To be a Cotton Club dancer, according to Ebony, you had to meet these requirements:

1. Beauty

2. 5 foot 5 or taller

3. 120 pounds or less

4. A little rhythm and knowledge of body movement (this sounds purposely vague in the moments when #1 conquers all)

5. Age 26 and under.

Lena was around sixteen when she auditioned, making her illegal, but, well, the gangsters weren’t exactly in love with rules. Cotton Club manager Clarence Robinson, upon reviewing her for the first time, didn’t exactly jump for joy: “A likely prospect, thin, but beautiful.”

[3] What black people call white bigots. I’d like to call all the white people in Alabama who voted against interracial marriage in 2000 ‘Zestas’.

[4] Louis lost the fight at the age of twenty-two. It was one of the more devastating losses in his career, but he was able to bounce back and gain his revenge on Schmeling in 1938. Later in life, Louis carried around photos of Horne, and vice versa.

[5] Lena’s daughter, Gail, would later write an excellent book called The Hornes.